Can’t You See I’m Smart?*

Multiple IntelligencesResearch during the past few decades has shown us some fascinating things about the way we think and know. It used to be believed that intelligence could be measured on a single dimension. The assumption was that everyone had a certain amount of this one ‘thing’ called intelligence. But work by Howard Gardner and other researchers has changed all that. Gardner conceived of several different intelligences. According to this theory, there are several different ways of thinking and knowing; Gardner called them multiple intelligences. We each have some of each of the intelligences, but in each of us, at least one (and usually more than one) is particularly strong. Hold on – I’ll get to crime fiction in just a second.

Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences make a lot of intuitive sense if you think about it. Some people are naturally good at, say, art, music, athletics or languages. And research has supported his theory fairly consistently. We can even see these multiple intelligences woven all through crime fiction. If you look at the way various sleuths go about solving cases, you can see how different ways of thinking and knowing come through in the genre.

For instance, one of Gardner’s multiple intelligences is what he called logical-mathematical intelligence. People with a high degree of this kind of intelligence find it easy to recognise patterns and algorithms. They find numbers and codes and puzzles interesting and their skill is in deduction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. As Holmes fans know, he looks for patterns and focuses on deduction and logic.

There’s also what Gardner called visual-spatial intelligence. People with visual-spatial intelligence tend to be talented at art. They notice colour and design and respond to what they see. In a very obvious way we see that kind of intelligence in Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy. She’s an artist who responds to what she sees and can create in several different media. For instance in both Final Curtain and Tied Up in Tinsel (and other novels too), Troy is commissioned to paint portraits. So she’s on the scene when murder happens at the homes where she’s staying. Although it’s technically her husband Roderick Alleyn who officially solves the cases, Troy’s skilled eyes are very helpful in finding clues. We see that especially in A Clutch of Constables in which she goes up against an international art forger known only as Jampot. Hercule Poirot also has this kind of intelligence. He’s quite observant about his visual surroundings and of course, fans know how important the appearance of his clothes and moustaches are to him.

Some people have a great deal of linguistic intelligence. Novelists, poets, journalists and other writers often fall into this category. If you love words, play a lot of word games and notice the way people use language, you’ve got a solid dose of this kind of intelligence. For instance, John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is a lexicographer. Words and languages are his specialty. That’s how he finds out the truth in, for instance, Hag’s Nook, where a cryptic poem turns out to be key to a murder. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse has a dose of this kind of intelligence too. He does after all solve crossword puzzles with a pen and is a stickler for certain kinds of language use.

People with a lot of kinesthetic intelligence have a solid sense of where their bodies are in space. Actors, athletes, dancers, and people who can parallel park on the first try show this kind of intelligence. People with kinesthetic intelligence like to learn by doing and using their hands and bodies. For example, Helene Tursten’s DI Irene Huss has a share of kinesthetic intelligence. She is a former judo champion who uses the principles of judo to keep herself in shape as well as to clear her mind and cope with the stresses of her life as a cop. And interestingly, we several instances in this series where Huss gets bored and tired of paperwork and the other ‘desk routines’ that are part of a cop’s life. Although she’s hardly rash, Huss prefers to be out doing things to sitting at her desk. She also enjoys going for runs and exercising the family dog. All of those are hallmarks of kinesthetic intelligence and it serves Huss well.

Gardner also proposed interpersonal intelligence. People with interpersonal intelligence are skilled at interacting with others. I don’t mean that they are necessarily manipulators; rather, they work well with all kinds of people. And that is a critical skill for a sleuth. So, most fictional sleuths have at least some degree of it. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Paul Brown for instance is highly skilled at communicating with others, at forming bonds with them and understanding their perspectives. That’s how he learns as much as he does from suspects and witnesses. Karin Fossum’s Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer is like that too. When he’s investigating a crime, one of his talents is the ability to see things from a variety of other perspectives and ‘get in people’s heads’ to understand why and how they do what they do. People tend to become comfortable talking with him and he often finds himself better able to get information through his interactions than he would through simply reading police reports.

There are also people with a lot of what Gardner called intrapersonal intelligence. Reflective people, people who keep journals and those who are really aware of themselves show this kind of intelligence. And being aware of one’s own reactions  – one’s sense of self – can be very useful for a sleuth. For example, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux has a keen self-awareness. That self-knowledge and reflection have helped him cope with some of the traumas he’s had to face, especially his Vietnam-era experiences. For instance in A Morning For Flamingoes, Robicheaux agrees to go undercover as a ‘dirty’ cop to try to trap New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Part of his assignment is to get close to Cardo but that proves increasingly difficult for Robicheaux as he becomes aware that he has sympathy for his target. Throughout this novel, Robicheaux keeps himself as grounded as he can by ‘checking in with himself.’

Another of the multiple intelligences people have is musical intelligence. Obviously singers, composers and musical artists have a healthy dose of this kind of intelligence. But it’s more than just being able to sing or play music on key. It’s also a sense of rhythm and a keen awareness of sound. If you like a soundtrack when you work, or if you find yourself singing or whistling when you weren’t aware of it, or if you can’t help walking in time to the music when you walk past a car with its radio on, you know what I mean. And if you don’t, just ask Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson, who used to be a rock singer and still does occasional gigs. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus has musical intelligence as well although he’s hardly a famous rocker. His music collection matters a lot to him and there are lots of scenes in the Rebus novels (including a really well-done scene in Exit Music) in which he gets or listens to music.

Naturalist intelligence is actually pretty self-explanatory. People who are attuned to nature and its rhythms and who just ‘fit in’ in natural environments have a lot of naturalist intelligence. Garden enthusiasts, park rangers, those who are comfortable with animals and those who simply like to be outdoors are examples of those with naturalist intelligence. There’s a lot of it in crime fiction too. Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon are all examples of people who learn from and use nature as they solve crimes. So does Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. These sleuths can tell much from weather patterns, animal activity, ground marks and other natural phenomena. In fact, they often find clues where others can’t.

Finally there’s what Gardner called existential intelligence, the most recent of his proposals. The big questions – the ‘why’ questions – appeal to people with a lot of existential intelligence. Philosophers and members of the clergy often wrestle with these larger questions. And sometimes getting philosophical can be helpful to a sleuth. It is to Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie, who is the editor of Review of Applied Ethics. She doesn’t go out looking for physical clues, and she doesn’t search for patterns. Rather, she looks at the larger motivations people have, and considers the larger issues of morality.

You may be thinking, ‘But don’t all these sleuths also have other intelligences?’ They do indeed. That’s the thing about multiple intelligences. We’ve all got all of the intelligences to some degree. And what’s most interesting is that we can develop the ones we choose to develop.

Interested in taking a look at your own intelligences? Try this Multiple Intelligences Survey. It’s got 40 questions and took me about 10 minutes or so to complete.  By no means is it definite – it’s just one look at the way we learn and know. If you’re a writer, what intelligences does your protagonist have?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Undertones’ Smarter Than You.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, G.K. Chesterton, Helene Tursten, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Jill Edmondson, John Dickson Carr, Karin Fossum, Nevada Barr, Ngaio Marsh, Tony Hillerman

26 responses to “Can’t You See I’m Smart?*

  1. Another interesting post, Margot. I am high in logical-mathematical intelligence and low in interpersonal intelligence. At least, that is my assessment. I will go take the test and see what it says.

    • Tracy – Oh, that’s interesting you’d see yourself that way, and I’ll be really interested in how close that little quiz comes to your self-assessment. And thanks for the kind words.

      • My highest was Logical, lowest was Musical. Interpersonal also pretty low. I would have expected to be higher in Linguistic than I was, but Intrapersonal and Naturalistic were both higher than Linguistic. Very interesting.

        • Tracy – That really is interesting. Even if a little survey like this turns out not to be accurate, I think it always gives interesting ‘food for thought.’

  2. Interesting test – not sure how well I answered it, but I came out with high linguistic and intrapersonal intelligence, but very surprisingly musical also scored quite highly. It is true that I remember names more easily than faces…

    • Marina Sofia – You know, I’m not at all surprised your results came out as they did. You just…strike me as a lover of music and it’s obvious that you have really high linguistic intelligence.

  3. Fascinating quiz, Margot. My strengths appear to be word smart, number smart and music smart – the others come in MUCH lower, particularly body smart.

    • Les – Glad you enjoyed that little overview. I’m not at all surprised to find that you’re word smart; avid readers tend to be. And I’m not surprised about the music, either. As far as maths? I wish I were more number-smart. Oh, well, we all have different doses of different ‘smarts.’

  4. I can never resist that kind of quiz – I’m low on nature and music (love listening, but have no innate ability at all) high on logic and words, so about what I’d expect. Fascinating topic….

    • Moira – Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed the quiz. It sounds as though you know your own intelligences quite well. I’m not at all surprised that you’ve got a lot of logical and linguistic intelligence. I’ll bet you have a strong sense of the visual too.

  5. Skywatcher

    There is a theory that genius is really the ability to make unusual connections between wildly different facts. This does sound like the M.O. of lots of fictional detectives. In THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE, Holmes discovers the crime by working out how dirty trousers, what time of the week it is, and the sound that the pavement makes when you hit it, are connected.

    • Skywatcher – Now, that’s a very interesting way to look at it! And you’re quite right that Holmes shows exactly that ability in The Red-Headed League. Poirot mentions a similar sort of thing in Hickory Dickory Dock</i. Fascinating…

  6. Margot: Thanks for an interesting post.

    Nero Wolfe, if he could ever be lured into taking the test, would have one of the world’s most extreme scores. He would have no score for the kinesthetic, naturalist, music and interpersonal intelligences. He would be at the very top of linguistics, logical mathematical and intrapersonal intelligences. Since he would not care about the “big” questions he would have no score for the existential intelligence. He is a great model for the eccentric genius.

    • Bill – I think you’ve got Wolfe pegged perfectly. As you say he would certainly not have a high degree of kinesthetic intelligence and musical intelligence. But mathematical, linguistic and intrapersonal? Absolutely! And if there were such a thing as ‘gastronomic intelligence,’ he couldn’t be matched. As you say a true eccentric genius.

  7. kathy d.

    What a great post. Different intelligences, yes. I’d agree, although many people have several types of smarts. I hadn’t thought of detectives that way but started thinking of friends and relatives who have multiple skills.
    I’d say that Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Nero Wolfe can pull clues together from vastly different types of information and observations, weaving historical and current events together, international and local, political and personal. This is one reason why we mystery readers are so fascinated with these detectives and why they are perennial favorites.

    • Kathy – Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re quite right too that most of us have different kinds of smarts. That is, we may have one or another real strength, but we also have other ways of looking at things – other smarts – too. And your examples of Holmes, Poirot and Wolfe show how the great detectives can use their various intelligences to solve cases.

  8. Number, word and nature smart, that’s me. Although being number smart, one has to question a survey with only, presumably five questions per intelligence. Very small sample 🙂

    It’s a shame in A Clutch of Constables that Alleyn doesn’t recognise Troy intelligence. The first half of the book was rather enjoyable until Alleyn shows up and instantly packs Troy off to a hotel so that the men can take over…

    • PUzzle Doctor – LOL – yes, the survey isn’t exactly a thorough study. Still, it makes complete sense that you’d have a lot of ‘number smarts.’
      And you’re quite right about the second half of A Clutch of Constables. I do really like the novel but yes, Alleyn takes over and does the ‘real work’ of investigating doesn’t he.

  9. Interesting Margot. I came out high in word and music smart. No great surprises as I write and sing on a daily basis but at least I’m doing something that I should be doing!

    • Sarah – I’m glad you found this interesting; I think it is, too. And no I’m not in the least surprised at your strengths in music and writing. I’ve not had the pleasure of hearing you sing, but I’ll bet you’re talented. And I know you’re a skilled writer.

  10. kathy d.

    And then there are people with “street” smarts and intelligence about living that one can find amazing. These are people who can observe human behavior and life and daily occurrence and analyze them. I’d say they are poets, philosophers, psychologists — without the book learning.
    Living here in the Big Apple there are a lot of people like this who can say so much in a few words and get at the essence of an event or a person.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about that kind of intelligence. That ability to make sense of life and to understand it in a really gut-level, day-to-day informal way is fascinating.

  11. I guess I’m not the only one who immediately thought of “street smarts” and wondered where it fits into the grid. I took the test and rated highest in naturalistic smarts….but I guess that’s not surprising — I was raised on a farm around lots of animals and I love creatures, gardening, flowers, etc etc.

    I got my lowest ratings in Musical and Interpersonal. That’s not a surprise either. I’m a terrible musician even though I love listening to music, and I love people but tend to want to go hide in my office after too much exposure… 😀

    • Pat – I think you have a well-taken point about life on a farm. Farm people do have a really deep connection with the land so I’m not surprised either that you’ve got a lot of naturalist intelligence. I wish I had more of it actually. I am not good with plants, ‘though I do admire gardens.
      It’s interesting too that you like your personal time. I think a lot of writers are like that.

  12. kathy d.

    I love the chart at the top, not only the topics but the colors, etc.

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